DIY Guitar Amps—Would Vincent Approve?

Michael Louie


Like Vincent Gallo, I have few friends. I sometimes wonder why Vincent Gallo and I aren’t friends, though aside from the obvious reasons, we probably wouldn’t be able to stand each other. I actually saw Vincent Gallo outside Katz’s Deli around this time last year while I was getting one of those pastrami sandwiches. Surprisingly, we’re about the same height. A short few hours later, my girlfriend was breaking up with me over the phone. I’m sure he had something to do with that.

Something else Vincent Gallo likes to do is collect vintage and interesting music equipment. I know this from his ebay feedback, which I read while looking at his lengthy sales description about a BMX bike he got from Brooklyn Machine Works, a missive in which Vincent Gallo traipsed through his history as a breakdancer and BMXer in 1980s New York City, during which time he befriended a struggling young, but bright-eyed industrial designer who would go on to found B.M.W. and later betray Vincent Gallo by making him pay for his custom built bike some 15 or so years later. Which was the reason he was selling it. (Another thing Vincent Gallo and I have in common is the tendency to go on person rants about our own victimization.)

What I was getting at, however, is the item in the above picture. It is a small guitar amp made by my friend Amarin Cogburn, who is married to my best friend Sarah. Amarin is no electrical engineer or musician, but he is a creative guy who likes to listen to music and collect trading cards, an industry that has changed by leaps and bounds since we were kids. It is no longer “fun” to collect baseball cards and dust off their backs from the stale bubblegum. I’ve been watching the photos he’s been posting on his flickr account of amps he’s been making out of fancy trading-card boxes and they look to be well made and pack a little punch, more so than those tinny, but also kind of cool except for their overall prolificacy cigarette box guitar amp, though they’re powered by the same 9-volt type battery. It’s a DIY project Amarin started by blending his secret nerd-dom with his protean interests and hobbies. I called him up to ask him how he started making these.

I’ve made four of these; the first three I made around Christmas time last year. It evolved from an idea I had for [a friend’s] White Elephant party. I was trying to think of something to make, something electronic. I was thinking of making an iPod charger out of an Altoid box, but that seemed kind of lame, so I kept digging around and I found some write-ups on cigar box amps. I remember I had those boxes, the initial ones were card sets called National Treasures, made by this company Panini, which used to be Donruss if you remember them. I had those laying around the house and I figured one of those would be pretty nice because they looked pretty clean.

After the gift exchange my friend Rory wanted one. He fell in love with it. Actually, people were fighting over it. It kept getting stolen in the White Elephant. So I told my friends Rory and Toby I’d make them one just for cost of the parts. It was pretty much trial and error for me; for one, I don’t play guitar but I have a lot of people around me who do. All I have is a drum set downstairs covered in junk.

It’s not really that powerful, I think the amplifier chip is rated for less than a watt and can maybe handle 12-15 volts of total power. It’s less than a watt but it’s pretty loud actually. The place where I found the schematics kind of compared it to a Marshall amp, that kind of sound where it goes from loud to distorted pretty nicely.

Amarin based his design on the Runoff Groove “Little Gem” amplifier. While DIY amps aren’t all that special in and of themselves, what’s cool about this one is its unique vessel. He told me trading card boxes like these can cost hundreds of dollars, and if you look closely you can see these boxes contain only a few cards, which may or may not be valuable. It’s more about the interior packaging for the cards, their presentation of rarity and value, and these boxes usually get tossed to the wayside. Amarin posted some photos of the amps on a trading card blog and was later contacted by a hobby marketing manager for one of the card companies and he sent Amarin some free schwag and Amarin built him his latest amp, one which he eliminated the power switch and opted for an automatic-plug on/off switch and added a little LED indicator. “So you can’t accidentally leave it on plugged in,” he said. He also added an output plug so you can connect to another speaker or amp.

RIght now Amarin is just building these for friends and by request, but I think if you ask him nicely and offer the promise of cash, he’ll build one for you. He’s still tooling around with improvements and ideas for the next one, which makes me think he’s a little young to be “puttering around.” “I kind of have a problem sticking to hobbies. I always bounce around. For a while I’ll be really into cars, then I’ll start playing poker a lot, and then I’ll be back in to baseball cards.

“[The amps] aren’t something that’s really that unique, but something that made it seem kind of cool is that it merged two hobbies that probably wouldn’t have ever crossed paths. Like those card collecting guys probably wouldn’t have ever thought to use it for sound; they probably would have thrown those boxes away.”

I can’t tell if this is interesting enough for Vincent Gallo. He tends to like vintage, high-end items. Some part of me wants him to like it. I think the only way he’d like it is if the box had a picture of a huge, flaccid penis on it, or maybe a picture of his own face, which is kind of like the same thing, figuratively. I dig it, though.

Contact Amarin at

And here’s a blog with sound clips recorded from the amp (near the bottom of the post).


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